Displaced Persons Panel to Honor Springfield’s Lithuanian Population

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To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, a panel on its impact is set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 25 in the UIS Brookens Auditorium.

    According to a press release for the panel, the Displaced Persons Act “directly impacted the ethnic composition of Illinois” and resulted in the influx of a large Lithuanian population in Chicago and Springfield.

    Despite this, Sandy Baksys, president of the Lithuanian-American Club of Central Illinois, said she doesn’t think there has been a presentation about the history of these displaced persons in her lifetime.

   With this being the case, she asked UIS’ history department to sponsor the panel as a way to honor and remember displaced persons and the challenges they faced.

   “Right now, all people who were adults when they immigrated are mostly dead or dying, so we’re losing the living memory of those people and what they went through,” Baksys said.

  This group of people includes Baksys’ father, Vince, who was driven from Lithuania in October 1944 by the Soviet Army. He left with his mother and four brothers and sisters.

  “The Soviets had already occupied Lithuania from 1940-1941,” Baksys said. “That reign of terror with tens of thousands of Lithuanians imprisoned, tortured, murdered or deported to Siberia convinced people like my grandmother that the family had to leave if or when the Soviet Army came back.”

   They became refugees in Germany, then were taken care of in a displaced persons camp in post-war Germany before going to the United States in 1949.

   Displaced persons needed citizen sponsors to enter the United States, but there was no assistance such as welfare or food stamps, so many began to work “as soon as they got off the boat,” according to Baksys.

   “For a lot of the DPs, one job was not enough. They worked so hard,” she said.  “Several of the DPs I knew also worked part-time in construction, cut cemetery grass and even walked to the cemetery after work to dig graves.”

  Besides Baksys, other members of the panel are Robert Vitas, chairman of the Lithuanian Research and Studies Center in Chicago and executive director of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society; Devin Hunter, a UIS assistant professor of U.S. and public history and Heather Bailey, a UIS associate professor of modern European and Russian history.

  The panel is co-sponsored by the UIS history department, Lithuanian-American Club of Central Illinois and the Illinois State Historical Society as a part of the  Engaged Citizenship Common Experience Speaker Series.

   It is set to examine “how immigration at local and regional levels relates to the broader domestic and international contexts of the post-World War II period,” according to a press release.

     Hunter said there are political stakes that are always at play when it comes to things related to immigration, refugees and resettlement.

   “That was certainly the case in 1948,” Hunter said. “The politics of refugee and immigration policy…some of these questions of who we decide is eligible for refugee status and who isn’t, that’s not new. There were arguments about it then. [The] arguments are a little different, but there were still arguments for and against back then, just like now.”

   Hunter said the act was the first time the United States systematically made an effort to resettle refugees. “It’s a fascinating thing, just the idea of history of refugees and resettlement in the United States,” he said.

   This history is revelant today, Hunter added. “Refugee crises and displaced persons crises are oftentimes indicators of a global network, a global conflict,” he said. “No nation is an island to itself.

   A conflict on one part of the world at some point will have some impact on any other part of the globe.”

   Children of displaced persons, like Baksys, whose father recently died, will share their stories at the panel as well. “My dad held out as long as he could, to 99 years old,” Baksys said. “Now I am his memory, his voice.”

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